Beaminster town centre is changing. After a long period of stress caused by the recession and disastrous events such as the closure of Beaminster Tunnel, following a landslip that killed two people, the town is in an intense state of flux. In the first of a series of articles looking at Beaminster’s prospects, The Yarn has been talking to people starting up new enterprises and hearing from respected figures around the town about local issues and ideas for improvements.
Few of these matters are simple, so we’ve gone into some detail, to help readers get under the skin of the town. We also hope to inspire people to visit Beaminster. Despite some of the problems outlined here, it is a fantastic place. Let us know what you think by writing to The Yarn — and don’t miss more on Beaminster in our next issue.
What’s happening in Beaminster
Recent or imminent events include the opening of Brassica and its shop next door, the closing of Strummer Pink and the opening of Partners in Design, the opening of Cilla and Camilla’s new café and Joules clothes concession, the opening of Stockwood Lettings, the closing of Nessie’s Yarns & Crafts, the coming departure of the tenants at The Red Lion and its proposed major refurbishment, the Knapp Inn up for sale for the first time in 18 years, the renewed marketing of the Brainwave charity shop in the former newsagents in Hogshill Street, the application for starting a tea garden and antiques business in Hogshill Street by the chairman of the Beaminster Society, the launch of a Citizens Advice Bureau service in Yarn Barton and a car washing operation where the petrol station used to be.
Elections on May 7 may see two new faces representing Beaminster on West Dorset District Council and possibly (who knows until the votes are counted?) a new MP. The Town Council is five members short and is appealing for new blood.
Also — and not to be sniffed at, given how unpopular they are — new parking ticket machines have been installed by the district council in Beaminster’s two town centre car parks, though The Square’s machine is not of the hated “enter your numberplate” variety.
The town’s former bobby, Clive Chamberlain, lived in the police house next to the police station for 22 years and saw life in this small community from all angles, day and night.
On his retirement in 2013, he and his family moved just over the Somerset border where houses were much, much more affordable, but he’s still around the town “most days”.
He says: “I honestly can’t work out if Beaminster is on the up or the down.
“One of the issues is that locals, born and bred, end up moving away because property is West Dorset is out of range.
“It’s a growing town in terms of the number of residents, but the predominance is retired people.
“There is an awful lot to do if you are an older person, but having bought up three kids, it does lack facilities for them. The play area on the Memorial Playing Fields is sadly lacking.
“For visitors there is a good hotel [The Bridge House], a good restaurant [Brassica], a swimming pool and a gym. The travel links are good and there is an excellent comprehensive school.
“There is a Post Office, but no bank. There are good cafés and a bakery and a greengrocer. The Co-op is more expensive than in Crewkerne or Bridport because it’s classed as a convenience store.”
Should it stay the way it is? Or can it be improved?
“I think, very often, villages or towns do well if they have a ‘thing’, an identity, like being a book town, or an antiques village.
“Beaminster perhaps needs an identity. There are plenty of artists around.
“The Square, which is a car park, seems to do well when it is used for events like the foodie markets or the Beaminster Festival. But traders who rely on passing trade worry about losing the parking, although there is a perfectly good car park just a few yards away.
“There are plenty of second homes in the town, but do these people support the local economy, or do they arrive with their car boots full of bags from Waitrose in Chelsea?
“There is a dichotomy though. People who love Beaminster, like it the way it is. It is a fantastic place to live because there is still a real sense of community.
“People who get up and go out of the town to work each day like to come back to Beaminster as it is now. Suggestions of doing things differently can perhaps be resented.
“I love it as it is; I didn’t want to leave, but I do think Beaminster has unrealised potential.
“Perhaps everyone should sit down and brainstorm — bringing in the young people too to see what they want.
“But as Disraeli said: ‘A camel is a horse designed by committee’!”
New enterprises in Beaminster
The late West Dorset MP Jim Spicer, who lived near Beaminster, used to remark on the importance of simply getting business people down to West Dorset, so they would fall in love with the area, want to move, and either bring a business with them or set one up. Chris Duncan — founder of the vacuum-cleaner makers Numatic — was one example that Sir James liked to cite, particularly before Numatic moved from Beaminster to Chard. All three of the new enterprises described below have been set up by people who moved to this area because they liked it.
Beaminster’s new restaurant Brassica occupies a fine Grade II listed building at the corner of The Square that dates back to the 16th century. The property has been a coaching inn, hardware store, clock shop, antiques shop and bookshop and more recently traded as Pickwicks, The Black Cat Bistro, The Wild Garlic and Big Fish, Little Fish. These different enterprises have met with varying degrees of success. Few, if any, have inspired such immediate feelings of affection as Brassica. The Yarn’s new food and drink critic Simon Mehigan, who’s spent 30 years seeking out good places to eat and drink across West Dorset, has been to Brassica 13 times (that’s at the time of going to press!)
Chef/patron at Brassica is Cass Titcombe, who lives with his wife Louise and family in a village near Beaminster. Cass has previously had a very successful career at restaurants in Bath and London, most notably Canteen.
He says: “We didn’t necessarily set out to do anything in Beaminster, but it’s a very pretty town and square and so it felt like it was the right place for us.”
Cass was born in Gloucestershire, and lived in a remote part of Wales as a young child, so he’s in no way fazed by living in the countryside. However, he freely admits that doing business in Beaminster is very different to London: “It’s the hours that people eat here, and the volume of trade is more reliant on tourism from out of the area. We originally intended to open last July, but in fact it was September, which made it a bit harder for us. It meant we had to build up the local trade, but then that’s kind of what you want anyway, you don’t want to be reliant on tourists. If you can last through the winter months on locals, then you’ll be ok.
“It’s still fairly unpredictable, apart from the weekends there’s no real pattern to trade. We’re a small restaurant and everything’s fresh because we change our menu every day, so staffing and things are difficult to manage and people don’t seem to realise what very high overheads there are in a restaurant. It’s a serious business.”
The restaurant now employs a dozen people, though not of course all full-time, and — before the May Bank Holiday weekend — a Brassica shop is due to open next door.
Other traders have gratefully remarked to The Yarn on how people come out of Brassica after lunch, feeling happy and carefree and in the mood for spending money. That’s the way local economies work!
Cilla and Camilla’s new café
Richard Barker runs Cilla and Camilla gift shop with his partner Sally Ann Palmer. Richard used to be managing director of the bookshops Waterstones and Blackwells and of the Crown Post Offices (that’s the most important ones in towns and cities).
Summarising greatly, they moved near Beaminster because they couldn’t find anywhere they wanted to live near Oxford and one weekend they were down in Broadwindsor (visiting Sally Ann’s parents) and thought: “Actually, we could move down here”. And so they did. “We love West Dorset, it’s great. And we’re near the sea, and there’s lovely places to eat and the kids love the school they’re at.”
They bought the existing Cilla and Camilla shop in Beaminster (the imaginary Cilla and Camilla were the original founders’ vision of what typical ladies in Beaminster would be) and they’ve since moved over to another side of The Square, expanded into Bridport and bought the Cook Shop in Sherborne. They will soon open a café and Joules clothes concession in the premises next to Cilla and Camilla in Beaminster (the old No. 21).
Richard says: “We’ve always liked Beaminster, because it’s got its attractions, but it’s not a chocolate box town, it’s not petrified in that way, and it punches above its weight, because of that road” — he gestures towards the A3066 — “it gets all of the coast traffic.
“In our shop the busiest time of the week is about half-past four on a Saturday afternoon, people coming back from West Bay, or from Bridport, or from Burton Bradstock, and they stop here and there’s two things they do, they wander around this shop and they ask where they can get a cup of tea.
“So the café is a perfect location for people who are coming back from the coast, or going to the coast. If it weren’t for that road, we wouldn’t be here, definitely. About half our business comes from visitors. By visitors I mean people who come regularly every six months or every 12 months, or they are the children of people who’ve retired here, who come down to see their parents with their grandchildren at the weekend. Saturday, the customers are completely different to what they are Monday to Friday. Then it’s mostly locals, by which I mean people from as far as Sherborne or Axminster and out.”
Barbara Proctor was an expat in South-East Asia before she came back to the UK and settled in Bath about 11 years ago. She opened up an interior design studio in the artisan area of Bath, and gradually found herself doing more and more refurbishment and project managing. She moved to Beaminster about 18 months ago because she always wanted to live nearer the sea.
“I fell in love with the place, I just love, love, love being here — you hear that story, I’m sure, all the time,” she smiles.
After a year and a half of going backwards and forwards, she began thinking more and more of setting up in West Dorset, “and it just so happened that me looking coincided with the space that is Strummer Pink becoming vacant. And so I have decided to cease trading in Bath and move my operation down here. It’s going to be bigger down here but it’s also going to formalise what has kind of been organically growing anyway, so we will be an interior design studio but also have under one roof everything that anybody will need for anything they require to do with interiors.”
Partners in Design will also have a showroom to add to Beaminster’s niche in homeware and interiors. Barbara believes this is a rich vein for the Beaminster area because of the number of people relocating, retiring, and renovating.
“I think Beaminster is in a period of recovery. I think there’s going to be a lot of new blood in here. And the more reasons we give people to come as a destination shopping place here, as opposed to going straight on into Bridport, the better.”
NO BANK IN BEAMINSTER
HSBC shut down Beaminster’s last remaining bank in 2012. There was a campaign to persuade HSBC to turn the Beaminster branch into a community bank, offering shared banking services, but HSBC was unmoved. It only agreed to keep a cashpoint machine. Lloyds Bank had a branch in a handsome listed building in the corner of The Square, but that was closed about 20 years ago.
Problems caused by the lack of a bank in Beaminster were much discussed at a recent meeting of the Bridport Local Area Partnership. Many people — particularly farmers — who used to come into Beaminster to do things like pay in cheques must now go further afield and they take their other shopping needs with them.
Angie Denham has run Fruit and Two Veg for nearly 15 years. She stocks produce from the Denhams’ family farm at Merriott, just north of Crewkerne, and from many other local producers. The shop’s a byword for quality, cheerfulness and friendly gossip. While The Yarn was there chatting to Angie, Mat Follas — the popular Masterchef winner, formerly of The Wild Garlic in Beaminster — popped in to collect an order.
“Angie’s the best fruit and veg shop for 20 miles around. She’s brilliant.”
But some custom’s been lost through the closure of the bank. Angie says: “You get that little erosion. You know, with the bank, I have got customers that I used to see regularly every week, they still pop in now and again and they’ve said it to me — ‘I have to go to Bridport to do my banking and it’s a detour for me to come and shop with just you or, you know, just you and the butchers, so I do it in Bridport — or Crewkerne.’
“The more you pull out of a town, the less reason you’ve got for people to come in and the more custom you lose.” It’s a tricky problem that needs to be recognised. But let’s be blunt: who expects any of Britain’s banks to give a monkey’s about a small town like Beaminster?
The only solution for now could be to promote the services offered through the Post Office in Hogshill Street.
THE WAITROSE EFFECT
A real issue. West Dorset now has branches of Waitrose in Dorchester, Poundbury, Bridport and Sherborne, one just over the Somerset border in Crewkerne and one in East Devon, at Sidmouth.
In Fruit and Two Veg, Angie says: “Waitrose hasn’t done us any favours, two so close, one in Bridport, one in Crewkerne. Has it done Sherborne any favours? Probably not.
“There are certain people that won’t use any other supermarkets, but they’ll use Waitrose. There were people that would come into Beaminster to do all their shopping because there wasn’t a Waitrose, but now… I’ve always said about supermarkets that they can afford to lose one, gain one, lose one, gain one, but with the small independent, you lose one, you notice it.”
Michael Hughes, on his last day at Strummer Pink in Beaminster, said: “I’ll say one thing. Two branches of Waitrose have pulled people out of town. Full stop.”
In Le Vieux Four, Lynette Fisher says: “They never used to do lemon tarts or pear and chocolate tarts and now they do similar things to what I do. Not homemade, of course, but they’re very, very competitive and it’s very difficult to fight them. The only way we can fight them is through customer loyalty.”
Lynette started Le Vieux Four as patisserie and café in 1991 before even Safeway (now Morrisons) had arrived in Bridport, so she’s traded through a sweep of changes.
Part of the power of supermarkets is that it’s difficult to know what to do about them. One answer is to keep reminding people of the pleasures and merits of buying local: the possibility, for example, of better food (fresher, tastier, cheaper and money keeps circulating within an area). A radical possibility would be for West Dorset District Council to follow the so-called Enfield Experiment by Enfield Borough Council in north London and seek to localise corporate social responsibility, that is, to press supermarket chains about what they procure within an area and what they put back. Is £1,000 a month via those Waitrose green tokens really enough?
SPEEDING (AND PARKING)
The main road through Beaminster is the A3066. It brings a lot of traffic through the town, right by the car park in The Square. Sometimes locals get so habituated to the way things are, it needs more of a newcomer’s eye to see problems afresh. Cass Titcombe says: “I think they need to do something about the parking, I don’t know what, I’m not a planner, but the traffic’s a bit of an issue, it’s a main route and you do get some rather large vehicles lumbering through here and that car park [in The Square] where you park along the roadside edge is an absolute nightmare.
“You see so many near misses. People trying to get in and out of parking spaces and cars going too fast, basically.
“People don’t want to park up Fleet Street because that’s not where the shops are, but that in turn relates to the problem of the main road, because it’s difficult to cross, it’s a bit of a nasty bit of road. I know there’s a 20mph limit but I don’t think that’s really stuck to. It needs some traffic lights or a crossing or something.”
Beaminster’s only crossing is the zebra crossing near the Post Office (which the town’s former policeman Clive Chamberlain says he “fought for ages to get”.)
In Le Vieux Four, Lynette Fisher says — it’s a phrase that recurs spontaneously again and again — “it’s an absolute nightmare. From my point of view, it takes an awfully long time to cross the road from the Square, so being down a side road, I’m constantly battling with that because it takes people ages to get across the road. You’re in fear of your life, because there’s no pedestrian crossing from the Square. You’re not going to walk all the way up to the Post Office to cross, are you?”
Lynette’s teenage shop assistant Ella (right), who has always lived in Beaminster, agrees: “I was walking to work this morning and it took me a while to get across the road safely.”
Mike Read moved to Hogshill Street in Beaminster five years ago from Northamptonshire with his wife Moira. He says: “We just liked it immediately, it’s perfect for us.” Mike’s career was in project management and logistics for companies like Laura Ashley, Xerox and Fedex. He chaired the Beaminster Future group which produced the big Beaminster Parish Plan 2013-2023 and he’s involved with the town’s community speedwatch team. At the moment, team members have to put up temporary warning signs to motorists.
Mike thinks this is an insufficient nudge towards getting people to obey the 20mph speed limit through Beaminster. He says: “It’s clear to us as the speedwatch team that permanent signs are the right way to go. At the moment, if you see speedwatch signs, then you know that the speedwatch team is out. If the signs aren’t up, the team’s not out. What’s the help in that, if we’re only out for — let’s say — one hour a week, as a group of volunteers? With permanent signs, you wouldn’t know.
“We have the support of the town council, our county councillor, our district councillor, our MP, but at the moment we cannot persuade the county council that permanent signs are the right thing and I think behind it is probably finance.”
THE SQUARE (AND PARKING)
Richard Barker points out of his window. “Look at that,” he says. “See that car reversing out onto the road, it’s an absolute nightmare. That is extremely dangerous — and illegal.”
He goes on: “Parking in The Square — in fact, The Square itself — is the most divisive topic in the town. What would I do? On the one hand, from an aesthetic point of view, I’d love it not to be a car park. You could have chairs and tables out there, and from my café here I could rent some space from the town council out there, and we’d have a place to sit and play boules.” We smile at the thought of the French scene conjured up. “On the other hand, a lot of my customers park here for ten minutes and nip in the shop and out.
“The other big draw is the Co-op of course. The Co-op is fantastically busy. One bag shopping. Huge off-licence business. And I’m think I’m right in saying there are 82 second homes in Beaminster, which the owners either live in or let as holiday lets and those people all shop in the Co-op because they can’t be bothered to drive somewhere else. So they’re in there every day, buying bits, and that car park is in constant use.”
Debs Moxhay, on her last day at Strummer Pink before leaving after six years to concentrate on her shop in Honiton, wished that Beaminster had “a decent market in The Square — something to bring people in. If we had a good market in town, people would come.”
But the idea of regular markets is controversial because of the question of where people park instead — and whether markets take trade away from some Beaminster shops.
Angie in Fruit and Two Veg says: “If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it on the right day. Closing that Square off, when the town is busier anyway, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; it has an effect, big time. When they’ve shut that Square off, like for Christmas lights or markets, we drop, tremendously. And it’s purely because people can’t park. Beaminster’s got a lot of older people that like to be able to park close to where they shop. If you’re a bit frail, and you’ve got to carry bags of shopping, it’s quite nice that the parking’s there. You can park, do your shopping, and drive off.”
Mat Follas — who still lives in Beaminster — says: “I’d like to see The Square sorted out, but it only ever seems to be talked about when there’s an election and nothing ever actually changes.
“We should organise the parking. You could organise the same amount of parking by putting angled parking in around the sides and doing something simpler in the middle. The charging and the traffic wardens seem unnecessary for a small town like this. It would self-regulate itself pretty well, I think, if the parking was free. The locals wouldn’t put up with somebody blocking a bay all day long.
“I think the town’s recovering now the tunnel’s open. It’s just getting people back, and that takes time.”
Mike Read says: “There probably is a combination of parking and pedestrianisation which is yet to be realised in The Square. At the moment it’s definitely car-centric and traffic-centric and one wants to see more of a shift towards putting the people and the pedestrians first rather than the traffic and the motorist first. That’s probably the single most important thing that one could do.”
Now is the time — before Thursday, May 7 anyway — to quiz all local politicians about what they would do. And after May 7, get them to do whatever’s agreed is best. In the meantime, The Yarn has one small suggestion. Straighten out the sign coming into Beaminster from the Bridport direction on the post just before you get to The Red Lion, that tells people all about car parking. It’s wonky.